The Present and Future of Social Networking
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PEDRO HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Good evening. Welcome to this session titled Friends, Lovers, Trust and Safety - The Present and Future of Social Networking. My name is Pedro Hernandez-Ramos and I am the Associate Director of the Center for Science, Technology and Society who is co-sponsoring this event along with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the High Tech Law Institute. I will serve as moderator for tonight’s event.
A few brief comments. Social networking could not have been the focus of a session like this ten years ago for the simple reason that it did not exist. To be sure, we already had e-mail and the Internet, which meant that many of us created pretty horrible Web sites that were all about me, because, back then, that was the only thing to do. Today we do something like that but rely on Web sites like MySpace, Facebook, Ning and many others to let our family, friends and the rest of the world find out everything about us. And that is precisely at the core of the issues to be discussed tonight. Where is the boundary between the private and the public? What private information should I share on my virtual wall? What consequences should I expect from the fact that such private information is now available to the world, not just the people I know?
This is just a sampling of the many questions facing us in this brave new world of social networking which is having an increasingly significant impact on allocation, at least on student’s lives, if not yet on teaching and learning; in politics and as a data point, MySpace will be hosting political meetings on campuses across the country from September to December, highlighting one candidate at a time and already all the frontrunners have agreed to participate. And in economics, for example, the News Corp. has paid $580 million for MySpace and, needless to say, the culture of social networking is having a broad impact on society at large.
So to help us think better about this complex phenomenon, I’m delighted to introduce the four panelists who will add to our understanding with their comments and insights. I will introduce them all in alphabetical order which is not going to be the order in which they’re going to speak. So first, Marian Liu who is not here yet but, of course, she’s stuck in traffic in downtown San Jose so she should be here any minute, is a multi-media entertainment critic for the San Jose Mercury News. She writes about pop, urban, alternative and ethnic music in a variety of media—print, audio and video—and covered a lot of online culture when it was first starting, writing about online dating and searching for jobs online. She also covers the Bay Area hip-hop scene for the national hip-hop magazine, Source Magazine. In the past, she has also worked in television as a segment producer of the Asian-American culture show, “Pacific Fusion.” Marian also is a regular speaker at universities and conventions, often about the future of journalism on young readers online. And, in her off time, believe it or not, she designs jewelry, plays video games, snowboards and is learning judo and yoga.
Next, Jim Squires, immediately to my right, is the vice president of products at Ning, an online platform for creating social networks in Palo Alto, California. Ning gives everyone the power to create their own social network for anything. Prior to Ning, Jim was a senior manager at Yahoo!, responsible most recently for the company’s broadband products. He joined Yahoo! in 1999 with the acquisition of Broadcast.com, an early video start-up based in Dallas, Texas. Squires holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Texas Christian University. He and his wife live in San Francisco. Welcome, Jim.
Next, Kaitlin Thompson is finishing her sophomore year in the Honors Program here at Santa Clara, majoring in history and physics and considering adding a major in religious studies. She graduated in 2005 from Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, California; was a member of the synchronized swim team; and participated in mock trial and speech and debate competitions. I am happy to say that she’s also one of our student workers at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society. Welcome, again, Kaitlin.
And, finally, Shannon Vallor received her Ph.D. in 2001 from Boston College where she studied phenomenology and the philosophy of science and technology. As an assistant professor in philosophy at Santa Clara University, she teaches courses in the history of modern philosophy, the ethical and social implications of technology, and the philosophy of science and works with Santa Clara’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society, as well as with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She is currently researching the ethical implications of technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging, and blogging, with a focus on the impact of emerging communications technologies on social virtues such as honesty, patience, and empathy. Welcome, Shannon.
SQUIRES: Hi, everyone. As Pedro said, I’m with a company, a little start-up, we’ve got about 30 people, called Ning. We’re based out of Palo Alto. And we believe in empowering everyone to be able to create a social network for anything. So you hear the term social network, as Pedro said, social networking didn’t even exist ten years ago but it really has become this force. There are hundreds of millions of people out there using social networking products. It’s become so cutting edge that every one is, kind of when they hear social networking they, almost in some circles, see people roll their eyes and say oh, it’s a fad. It’s going to pass, which is definitely not the case.
But once you’re creating your site, you decide what features and functionality you want inside there. So you walk through a wizard and you can decide, I want photos flicker-style inside of my social network. I want videos, YouTube style. I want some combination of all the above with forums and video and photos. And then you customize the theme and you decide what you want it to look like. And then you invite your friends to it. And you can, very much, make it a public network or a private network or a hybrid between the two, so you control who can see it and who’s joining your network.
The company’s been around, actually, for about two years. We re-launched the product about ten weeks ago and have had a huge success with it. Over ten weeks, there are over 50,000 separate networks out there. And it’s really interesting leading up to that launch and designing it and deciding what the product would be and thinking, in your mind, anticipating how many people got out there; how they would use it. And then you release it. It’s a platform. People can do whatever they want with it. And they do things that you could never believe and you can’t imagine the variety of networks that have sprung up.
There are over 50,000 examples, as I said. But some of my favorites that have sprung up range from a site called The Veloist which is community of cyclists in Chicago ranging to a site called Library 2.0 which, I had no idea that this is one of our fastest growing sites. It’s got thousands of people on there and it’s librarians who are connecting internationally through this social network. Another one that really surprised me was the Mobile Notary Network. I don’t know any mobile notaries, but there are a lot of them out there. And they have a very active social network on Ning.
So it ranges from those type of very niche-oriented networks all the way up to large media companies. CBS launched a network. We didn’t even know about it until it launched for the One Tree Hill TV show; never seen it before, but I guess that’s extremely popular. The Dallas Mavericks have their official social network up there. And then, one of my favorites that just launched, a record label, it’s an underground hip-hop label called Rawkus that sprung up there. The label that made Mos Def famous and so they put this out there and they wanted to just try it out and see how people reacted to. So they really only told some insiders and they said, tell your friends, but really don’t promote this site yet. And it’s already got thousands of people on there. I was checking out the site last week. I think one of my favorite quotes so far that I’ve seen across any of these networks comes from the Rawkus network. This is what one of the members said: “No doubt, this beat MySpace. MySpace gets hella boring, but on here, there’s some interesting folks. I’m already hooked to this site. I’m only telling a couple people about it because it’s off the chain like DMX Driving Reckless posing as a police officer, you dig.” It’s my favorite quote.
So that’s what we do. And, as I was sitting down preparing and thinking about the future of social networking, there’s a few things that I see developing; a few things going on within the industry. One is, really social networking is in its infancy. So we’ve got hundreds of millions of people out there using it. And because of that, it’s already a proven mainstream concept that has lasting power. But there are so many more niches and people out there that will latch onto this and begin using this that, really, we’re just defining what this looks like and how that will work.
A couple other things that I see going on are people just are becoming more and more savvy about social networking and they want more freedom with that. I mean, the largest social networking site out there, I won’t mention it, but you guys probably know who I’m talking about, people pimp out their pages and it’s not easy to do. It’s very difficult. If you go in there and you’ve got every page looks different. People spend hours customizing it. I don’t have to tell you guys this. And that really, to me, shows that people want more freedom. They want to have something that represents their personality. They want to customize it and they want to do that.
And I think of that very similar to where you’ve got the large social networks today. It’s not one size fits all. You can customize a little bit. You can’t do much with it. And as you fast forward, I believe that that will change and people will want to do more within their social networking.
The other thing that, and this is a little more Ning-oriented, but I really think this applies across the board, is as people are building out communities and their own communities, there’s the challenge, with so many people just moving across these communities, of truly fostering a community and a strong lively community that people want to go back to and spend time on and not just disappear to other sites. And an example of this is when we launched ten weeks ago, I put up a personal site for cold water surfing in San Francisco. I surf up there and thought it’d be a cool thing to put up. And I left it open because I figured that the more people I could get into this surfing site, the more successful it would be and the more popular it would be and people would be using it most often. So I put it up there. Immediately people go over to Ning; they search; they find surfing and they join the network. And I got, within a couple days, hundreds of people in there on the network. And so my first thought was, Wow, I just created a really successful network. This is fantastic. And about a week later, I noticed that there wasn’t much activity going on. So a lot of people joined and people were in there, but they really weren’t commenting or adding photos or videos or really interacting that much. And I talked to one of my buddies who is a surfer and who joined it originally and thought it was a really cool site. And he said, “You know what? I think I’m going to quit that off-shore site. It’s just there’s a lot of posers in there. It’s not surfers. It’s just not a very cool thing going on. And that really drove home for me the fact that it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality of the people in there and the interest and making sure that you’re fostering that community.
And then, finally, the other challenge is the, and this really is across the board, it’s a very general comment, but just privacy, in general, and spam across these networks. And I think, really, the only way to tackle that is making sure that you’ve got the right systems in place to help people to create their networks and defend their networks against spam or making sure that they have right privacy controls in place.
When we originally launched, we had just two options. You could do a private network or you could do a public network. And there was some variance in between. And we very quickly, from our users, heard that they wanted to do sites that were public. They wanted a lot of traffic on them but they didn’t want everyone joining and everyone being able to contribute content for the same reason that my surfing network was not popular. They wanted to have it out there; have it be public but just have people who were qualified and who really should be in that network able to participate. And so what we did was we went through and just to continue to enable that additional functionality so they could do that. So now you’ve got an advertising network out there. They were complaining that people were joining that weren’t in the advertising industry. And they don’t mind people being on there but they’re contributing content and ruining the community. And it’s amazing how these themes develop and they’re out there. And we take that in. That’s a major input into how we evolve the product. And so I think that’s a challenge. It’s something that we, across the board, need to keep facilitating for people.
So with that, thank you very much. Look forward to hearing all your questions.
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Thank you, Jim. So next, please welcome Kaitlin Thompson.
KAITLIN THOMPSON: Hi, I’m Kaitlin and I’m a sophomore here at Santa Clara. And I’m going to be talking more about stuff that’s relevant to college students because I’m a college student and I really don’t know anything about the business applications for social networking.
For me, the top five challenges for social networking include understanding a social network for what it is. If you have a Facebook or a MySpace or a LiveJournal, you pretty much used it to keep in touch with your friends or to just kind of have it or to put stuff up there. It doesn’t really matter. But it can be used for a lot more. Like, I had a class, Introduction to International Relations with Professor Stover, which is an awesome class. You should take it, but it’s really hard. But we had a conflict resolution simulation where we connected with students from Morocco, from Lebanon, from Florida and we worked together to work through a simulation regarding the situation in the Middle East. And it was really great because it allowed us to connect with students from other schools; not a lot of personal communication because it was for a class, but it was nice to know that it’s an option to communicate with people who you’ve never met and work together.
Of course, there were a lot of limitations like they didn’t e-mail you to let you know when people had responded to your posts, so you kind of checked 24/7, which is not fun. It’s really not fun when you have to do that for four days.
So you have to understand that what you put online is going to be online forever and ever. And people can find your information. So that’s really important to bear in mind when you put something online. If you post pictures of yourself drinking and your boss has access to it and they know you’re underage or if the RAs have access to that, that’s just not a good idea. Don’t do that. It’s not a good idea, just putting that out there. Also, you hear horror stories of people who say that they told their boss that they were taking a day off because they were sick and then posted on MySpace that they really went surfing. Those kind of things don’t make your bosses happy. You need to really be careful to put the right information in the right place. It’s not appropriate to have pictures of yourself doing silly things when people in the professional world or teachers or administrators have access to that information. You don’t think about it when you’re just posting pictures that you think your friends are going to see, but other people do have access to that information. That’s really important to keep in mind.
Another thing you need to remember is, how do you know who you’re talking to is who they say they are? Now if you’re on Facebook and someone leaves a post on your wall, you obviously know who that person is. They’re one of your friends or someone you, at least, know. And there’s some accountability there. You can find that person. If you’re just talking to some random stranger in a chat room, you have no idea who that person is. They don’t know who you are. You hear, again, horror stories of grown men pretending to be young girls talking in chat rooms and horrible things happen. I’ve never known anyone who that happened to. I doubt most of you have met those people, but, again, it’s important to bear in mind that people aren’t always who they say they are. It’s a matter of degree in this instance.
When you go to a job interview or when you’re meeting someone for the first time or you’re going on a first date, you try to present yourself well. You don’t say, “Oh, yeah, I dropped out of school and I spend most of my time at the beach.” You say, “Oh, well, I’m taking some time off; exploring my options.” Maybe you say, “I’m doing some writing.” But that’s different from pretending to be another person entirely. So, again, you need to be careful when you’re talking to people. Bear in mind that for all the things that you say that aren’t exactly true, they’re probably doing the same thing.
And, again, related to that is how do you want to represent yourself online? If you’re going to have a MySpace and you have it on Friends locked or you don’t have your Facebook profile open to the world, you feel more comfortable putting information up there that you don’t really want the rest of the world to see; that you don’t want your parents to see; that you don’t want that friend who you like to pretend that you’re much more sedate when you’re with them or a friend who you like to give the impression that you’re much more of a partier than you are.
But if you’re in a place that’s not like that, if your goal is to make new friends, you, again, have to adjust yourself for this new situation. If you’re just talking in person, subjects come up naturally, but you mostly keep yourself within the bounds of polite conversation. If you’re online, there’s a lot less accountability. You can say whatever you want to whoever you want and no one’s going to call you on it. The person who you’re talking to, it’s easy to pretend that they don’t really exist. You’re never going to see their reaction to your words. And if you say something that they find stupid, what’s the worst they’re going to do? Stop typing to you?
So it’s really different getting to know people online than it is in person. Familiarity can develop a lot faster because you’re able to share things with those people that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with them in person. But, again, there’s the potential for abuse where they’re telling you things that aren’t true. And if you decide to meet that person in person, bad things can happen, even if not to the degree of predators online, but just someone totally misrepresenting themselves. If you go to meet someone who you think shares all your interests and you find out that they were just making stuff up, well it’s kind of a let down.
So, again, the final concern is really posting responsibly. If you have something, like on MySpace, where anyone who has your e-mail address, who has your name, can look it up, don’t post your cell phone number on there. Don’t put your address on there. Those things aren’t good ideas. That’s just not, again, not a good idea. You really need to be sure that what you’re putting online, you’d be willing for anyone in the world to read; for anyone in the world to have access to.
We joke about Facebook stalking someone, checking out their profile, seeing what changes are going on; who’s talking to who. But that’s a lot different from someone whose intentions aren’t good—who wants to find out more about you; find out where your classes are; where your dorm is; when you’re going to be at a certain place. They know what you look like ‘cause we all have profile pictures. Again, it’s just bad things probably aren’t going to happen. Most people are like you and me, just kind of curious about what everybody’s up to; just want to use this to keep in touch with really good friends who you care a lot about, but with whom you don’t want to speak every day.
But you just need to remember that it’s really important to know that whatever you write, somebody’s going to see that. And it may not be the person who you want to see. Again, very unlikely that any of you or myself or most of the people who use Facebook or MySpace are going to actually be stalked in reality or be harassed by someone. But it’s something to bear in mind. Yeah, it’s not that it’s likely to happen, but it’s that it can happen that matters.
And even if you weren’t stalked, there are the lesser examples of your boss finding out that you’ve been drinking on the job or sleeping on the job. Or just having parents find out that you’re not where you say you are. Just don’t be stupid. Just pay attention to what you’re doing. Act responsibly for your actions. Yeah, hold yourself accountable. Make sure that what you put online is stuff that you’d own up to in person. Thank you.
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Thank you, Kaitlin. And now last, but not least, unless Marian shows up, is Shannon Vallor from the Philosophy Department. Welcome.
SHANNON VALLOR: The recent rise of social networking as an Internet phenomenon generates a host of ethical concerns, some of which have already garnered considerable public attention. These include worries about privacy and safety in an environment where we have already found it necessary to coin the term cyberstalking. But there are other, less visible but equally important, ethical questions about social networking that deserve our close attention.
My remarks focus on one such question which is this; what impact is social networking technology having on the ways that people build and sustain close interpersonal relationship and, in particular, the communicative virtues that help such relationships to flourish? I will identify five communicative virtues that I believe warrant careful reflection in connection with social networking technology.
But to see why my question is an important one, we first need to understand what is meant by a communicative virtue. It will help to briefly draw on the resources of an ethical theory that has recently garnered renewed respect: namely, Aristotle’s virtue ethics. And we don’t need a lot of ethical theory here, just a few key ideas.
Virtues and vices, as described by Aristotle, are states of a person’s character that are developed and strengthened over time by certain kinds of activities that the person has repeatedly and habitually performed. When one of these states of character expresses a form of personal excellence, we call it a virtue. And when it fails to do so, we call it a vice. Excellence is marked by the ability to develop one’s natural talents and use them to flourish in the larger human community.
The important thing to note here is that according to this theory, it is the kinds of activities that one gets in the habit of doing that determine the eventual quality of one’s character. One becomes a good person gradually by doing good things, and not just once or twice, but doing them repeatedly and habitually.
This view is important for our purposes for several reasons. First, if this view of ethics is correct, then the moral development of individuals cannot be predicted simply by looking at what they think or believe. We also have to know what kinds of actions they will get in the habit of doing and whether those actions will eventually promote, in that person, the development of virtues or vices. Thus, if social networking technology does promise to significantly change the nature of communicative activities that people regularly perform, then it will directly impact the moral development of persons who use that technology. A long term effect that is distinct from its immediate social consequences but certainly no less important for us to think about.
To the extent that social networking technology does alter or compete with these traditional forms of communicative activity, we must ask, Is it safe to assume that these new forms, designed for sheer consumer appeal, will be as conducive to the development of those essential interpersonal virtues as the old?
Finally, because virtues and vices are states of character that are developed over time and through habit, they are very resistant to change. That is, a true virtue is not easily uprooted, but neither is it easy for us to rid ourselves of our vices, as unfortunately, we all know. For this reason, we could do well to consider the relationship between social networking technology and communicative virtues now when the phenomenon is fairly new and still open to social critique, than later when opportunities for institutional and personal reform may be more difficult to come by.
Let me now turn to the five communicative virtues that I wish to consider and how their development could be impacted by social networking technology. What I will offer here is not a thorough analysis allowing us to draw firm conclusions about whether, or to what extent, social networking technology does undermine these virtues, but rather a preliminary indication of why we should want such an analysis. While there are more than five such virtues and we have time for only the briefest reflection on each, I have chosen the five that I think warrant the closest attention because of their central importance to strong and enduring human relationships and their potential vulnerability to the changes that social networking technology promises to bring.
Second, fidelity. Fidelity is a crucial part of any enduring relationship. It develops through the communicative practice of openly expressing commitments to another and honoring them and, in that way, honoring the uniqueness and the value of the relationship itself. Expressions of fidelity range from the simple commitment to go to a movie on a Saturday night with a friend, even if a more exciting opportunity later presents itself, to the lifelong commitment expressed in a vow of marriage. The expression of fidelity shows that you do not regard the other as replaceable, that even if someone else comes along who can occupy the same role and deliver the same social benefits, this could not, for you, be a substitute for the original bond.
Third, honesty. This is one moral virtue already widely discussed in the media as potentially threatened by the Internet, chiefly, with regard to the ability in many web contexts to misrepresent one’s age, gender, or other personal attributes. For many social networking sites, especially niche sites, where the only tie between members is a common hobby or interest, this remains a danger, although peer auditing presumably makes this somewhat more difficult on community sites such as Facebook.
But honesty as a virtue goes well beyond being truthful about one’s social identity and warrants a broader view. Honesty as a virtue is the willingness in communication to put one’s authentic self in play. That is, it involves the assumption of a certain risk; the risk of being disliked; the risk of giving offense; the risk of seeming different or being misunderstood. Now it can be argued that Internet communications, social networking included, may actually promote such risk-taking more than face-to-face modes of communication which may be perceived as higher stakes encounters to be treated with greater caution and restraint. But one must also ask to what extent members of social networking sites are putting their authentic selves in play any more than in face-to-face conversation, since the construction of a profile encourages members to construct a carefully edited version of themselves. A version perhaps aimed more at drawing in as many friends as possible than exposing one’s authentic personality.
We should also recall that, as Aristotle noted, virtues typically represent a mean between two extremes of vice: one, a deficiency; the other, an excess. Hence, while deceitfulness represents a deficiency of candor, and honesty and openness are terms that characterize the virtuous mean, a tactless or vulgar lack of reserve is viewed as a vice, an openness taken to excess. For example, the first wave of media coverage of social networking sites highlighted employers who surfed MySpace and Facebook to screen out candidates whose online posts or pictures display a dangerous lack of personal reserve. While a close trusting relationship cannot be built or sustained without honesty, reckless candor can bring a relationship to a premature end.
Fourth, tolerance. Tolerance, as a communicative virtue, expresses a willingness to be confronted with that which we find alien or distressing. Like honesty, which tolerance invites, it has been touted as a hallmark of Internet sociality, a necessary result of the connected individual’s immersion in a spider web of social links constantly opening onto new perspectives and worlds, both individual and cultural. There is, indeed, much merit in this view. But it is not immune to critical reflection as we may be reminded by recent events involving women bloggers who became the targets of vicious and frightening threats of violence from those who disagreed with their views. The response of many bloggers that such women should just get over it also calls into question whether Internet sociality can find the delicate balance between the virtue of tolerance and the vice of indulgence. Blogs, message boards, and chat rooms, all of which have been integrated into many social networking sites, can be forums that, at their best, approach the ideal of John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas. Yet they can just as easily devolve into forums where intelligent, critical discussion is crowded out by self-absorbed rants and juvenile insults. And, thus, it remains to be seen to what extent social networking technology can truly facilitate the virtue of tolerance.
Finally, perseverance. No human project of any substance can survive long without perseverance and close relationships are no different. In communication, perseverance manifests the willingness to push through conflict, misunderstanding, or boredom to reconnect with one’s partner on the other side of the breach. Like fidelity, it demonstrates to the other the depth of one’s commitment to the relationship and builds trust and confidence in its future by showing that the relationship’s continued existence is not wholly dependent on its momentary rewards. The immediacy and physicality of face-to-face modes of communication often force us to persevere even when we would rather not.
Yet this is precisely what builds perseverance as a virtue, rather than a grim resignation to the absence of an escape route from the conversation. For example, many of us can recall the experience of being a sullen teenager, stuck for a long afternoon with an elderly relative, surrounded by painful silence and the oppressive ticking of a grandfather clock and, eventually, forcing oneself to find a point of engagement—a desperate move that one realizes only much later was the seed of a mature and mutually-rewarding connection with another generation. But the proliferation of social connections on the Internet and the emphasis on multiple ongoing communicative transactions provides us with an ever-widening horizon of escape routes from any interaction that has lost its momentary appeal or comforts. What will drive new generations of digital natives to ford over those breaches and experience the rewards that only the virtue of perseverance can bring?
We must remember, of course, that these five virtues are only developed by traditional forms of communication at their best. Even then, traditional forms of communication and social networking are not without their defects and social networking technology clearly has the potential to address some of those limitations and move human communication forward, strengthening social ties and making them more rewarding, flexible, and enduring. They may even facilitate the development of new communicative virtues not previously recognized or given their due. Yet we must remember that any such advances maybe sporadic, trenchant, or outweighed by contravening effects.
If social networking technology is designed and driven by market pressures alone with complete indifference to communicative virtues and their essential role in developing and sustaining fruitful human connections, given how we learn to communicate is ultimately how we learn to be with others, it is time for the designers, marketers and users of social networking technology to engage in serious reflection on the importance of these virtues and to invest in the challenge of building on them. Thank you.
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Thank you all. We have intelligence that Marian Liu is on her way, but she may not be here in time within the next minute or so to start her comments. So what I would like to do is to start the Q and A. And then when she gets here, we’ll ask her to give an abbreviated presentation then continue with the Q and A. So does anybody have a question that they would like to ask? And then, if you don’t mind because we don’t have a roving microphone, try to state it succinctly. I’ll repeat it for everyone to hear and then let the panelists take it.
Q: Shannon, this is a question for you. You talked about the five communicative virtues. Do you have an example of a previous communication technology that actually caused these virtues to go down or go up? And what of the impact on society?
VALLOR: So your question is, Is there an example of a previous communication technology that actually caused a decline in the expression of, or development of, some important communicative virtue? Correct? Okay.
Well I do think that I seem to recall that when the telegraph, actually, was invented, the telegram, that people began to discuss the social implications of that form of communication which, by necessity, had to be a very brief and direct in its form. The telephone, also, was perceived, in some ways, as responsible for the decline of letter writing which has often been viewed as one of the ways in which some of the strongest sorts of relationships were built. And the telephone was criticized for, in terms of its accessibility and availability and ease, allowing communications to devolve into triviality. So that people would simply spend hours on the phone talking about nothing as opposed to the formality of things like letter writing which were presumed to have a sort of more substantive content.
Q: Yeah. I have a question…. coming from friend of mine’s father, that he was worried about his son who could never get a girlfriend. So he finally gets a girlfriend. So he Facebooks the girlfriend and finds out there’s a great picture of her finishing off a bottle of Southern Comfort and the caption underneath it is girl most likely to become alcoholic. I was queasy when I heard that story because I thought that actually he shouldn’t have been looking there and he shouldn’t have been paying attention to it even though the information is out there. I was hoping the panelists had any reaction to how they feel of sort of snoop behavior by parents.
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Um, hm. Maybe Kaitlin can take this one first.
THOMPSON: I don’t know. I mean parents always are interested in what their children are up to. They snooped through diaries, back when people kept actual, physical diaries. They’ll dig through your trash if they don’t trust you. Parents are always going to try to find a way to get this information. This just makes it easier.
Q: I just want to take that one step further. My son came back from Greece junior year abroad, had not taken any photos, and he said that’s all right. Let’s just put my name in Facebook and he found 47 photos of himself in Greece… Other people had put him up…. And I suddenly realized oh, my gosh, we’re no longer in control of how we present ourselves.
THOMPSON: That is true. On Facebook, you can untag yourself in pictures. I have done this in pictures that aren’t especially flattering, more in the physical sense than in a things I’m doing wrong. But everyone has pictures where they don’t like the way they look or that. So that is an option, at least in Facebook. But then, again, I think that, in a sense, is even more personal responsibility. If you don’t want to be photographed doing those things, you shouldn’t be doing those things.
SQUIRES: Growing up with that, though, is a very different thing. There’s a self-consciousness about it as well because every moment that, in the past, was fleeting, so you do something silly, all of a sudden now it’s caught and now it’s on YouTube or it’s on some site and everyone can see it and it’s preserved forever. [It] definitely affects how you approach things and how you think about things. There was a story about a woman, I think it was in China, that had her dog on the subway and let it use the restroom and then just left it and walked off. Somebody caught it on photo and then outed her on the Web and made her life a miserable hell. So it’s got some negative effects and some weird, possibly positive effects with citizen journalism. And you’re not as anonymous as you once were.
VALLOR: I just would add to that that it’s interesting because one of the important phases of being a teenager, or a young person, is trying on different identities and sort of experimenting with who you are. And it’s sort of frightening to think I would have been mortified, as a child, to realize that the identities I tried on or played with at that time would be preserved in a permanent record for anyone to view 20 years later. There are things I would like to forget. So in some sense, I feel deep sympathy for that. And I wonder what the costs are of not having that space to experiment and sort of discover who you are without the penalty of public exposure.
Q: This question’s directed to Dr. Vallor. I was wondering: You say that the modes through which we communicate and the technologies certainly seem to have a certain amount of influence on what virtues and vices, what activities we sort of honor and, at the same time, abhor. Do you feel that there have been any sort of overarching virtues that you feel have remained consistent throughout the evolution of communications technologies— sort of, I don’t know, a natural law of communications. Or has it been completely freelanced, almost like Darwinian style virtue evolution where it can just kind of go in any direction?
VALLOR: I’m not sure I can answer this question to your satisfaction but I’ll try. From the standpoint of virtue ethics, the kinds of virtues that we develop are determined by the kinds of activities that we perform, and, specifically, whether, and to what extent, those activities allow us to develop our natural talents and use them in a way that we flourish, both as an individual and as a member of the human community. I think, to some extent, any change in the form in which we relate to other people will result in a change in the way that that virtue gets developed; the extent to which that virtue becomes a habit; how deeply ingrained it becomes; what sorts of situations it can arise in; and so on. I think sometimes the change may not be visible enough or significant enough to cause us much social concern.
So I think we have to go on a case-by-case basis. We have to look at the virtues which are most important to us. We have to ask ourselves, In what way can the kinds of activities that we perform now, as opposed to before, in what way can those forms of excellence still come to be developed and expressed? And as long as we can answer that question affirmatively, as long as those essential virtues can still find expression, even if through a different route, then I think we’re okay. It’s when we might not notice until it’s too late that the expression of a virtue has declined to the point where the public possession of that virtue is slipping away and the social costs of that could be tremendous.
Q: Is social networking just a teenage and young adult phenomenon or is it possible to visualize a future where older adults could also use it?
SQUIRES: I think we can imagine that. You definitely get the feeling that which social network you’re on captures almost a life phase. You see people graduating from MySpace to Facebook as they go to college or if you were too young when MySpace was first around, then you don’t have a MySpace page. So I think that definitely is representative of where you’re at from a life perspective. For instance on the Ning sites, it really is not necessarily geared towards a younger demographic. It really is much more spread out from 15 to even 60, and our audience is various—50 percent international. So it’s a very different looking user than you might find on Facebook and MySpace and there’s crossover across the board. But you mentioned LinkedIn; that definitely has a much different demographic than Facebook or MySpace.
So I think, as I was saying before, I think it’s going to evolve and it really is very early on. And as older people learn this functionality and figure it out and figure out the benefits of it, they’re definitely going to latch on to it. And also as we move forward, everyone who has grown up with those technologies is going to take them for granted and be extremely comfortable with it. So there’s definitely going to be a transition as we move along. But I think, ultimately, it gets accepted by all types of people.
MR. HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Would anyone like to add anything?
MR. HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Kaitlin, anything? You see yourself graduating to any other social networks in your future?
MS. THOMPSON: Well it is a very effective means of communication. It really is helpful in keeping in touch with people with whom you would otherwise lose contact. I think that the types of sites would have to change in order for me to use this in the future. If you’re growing up out in the business world, if you want to use it for business or even just keep in touch with friends, you might not want the information that you’re sharing to be visible to the entire world or to your network. I know that if you don’t have it on friends only, Facebook allows all other Santa Clara students to read your Facebook profile. There’s an option to make it friends only so that only those people you accept as friends can see what you post. But I think that in the business world or even just as you grow up and don’t want everybody in the entire world to know your business, it will need to change so that it’s easier to restrict the information to a select group of people.
Q: Jim, you talked a little bit about your surfer community, of how it looked superficially healthy but it really just wasn’t. What do you think makes a healthy community? What are the attributes and the hallmarks of a healthy community? What can be done to generate and sustain that?
SQUIRES: Well definitely relevance and keeping it meaningful amongst all the members within that community. And for instance, the off-shore surf community kind of died on the vine; had hundreds of people in there but people weren’t using it and the real surfers in there thought it was uncool because the majority of the people weren’t surfers. And the other people that weren’t surfers really weren’t interested because they weren’t surfers. So it just kind of died. But then I’ve got another private network that has 15 people in it. And they’re all close friends. They already have real-world relationships, so it’s a little bit different. But it’s extremely active. There’s only 15 people on there and everyone is writing posts and uploading photos and interacting. And these are people that are a little bit older and almost missed the social networking phase during college so they weren’t on Facebook and they’re still kind of figuring it out. So it’s kind of pulled them into the fold and opened their eyes to the value of using social networking as a communication tool.
So when we first launched, it was one person who created the network and they controlled everything. And they were kind of responsible to make sure that everybody was happy and getting what they needed. And then we quickly heard that it was just too much for one person to keep up with and they wanted to have multiple administrators so that more people could help facilitate the community. So it’s different controls and systems and making sure that you’re boding [phonetic] it out in a fashion that it works for everyone that’s involved.
Q: Just to pick up on that thread and getting back to Shannon’s discussion and some of the others, Kaitlin, in particular, about behaviors in these spaces. I think one of the paradoxes is we call these spaces Facebook and things like that but, in fact, we are not face to face. We’re face to screen. And in the old form of social contact of meeting somebody in the village square, you were face to face and that inhibited certain behaviors, or, at least, created a greater cost to certain behaviors because you had the shame or the embarrassment or awkwardness of being face to face with the person. And so, in a strange way, even though these communities are facilitated by also having a real connection between people, some of the more negative behaviors are facilitated by the fact that you don’t necessarily have to have that recognition.
VALLOR: I think, in general, that we sometimes forget about the centrality of embodiment to human relationships and that communication is much more than just some words coming out of my head and managing to find their way into yours. And especially, I think, on the level of emotion and, of course, one of the first things that people tried to do with the Internet was to invent emoticons, things that could somehow carry emotional expression across the sort of bitstream. But I think people realized very quickly that you can maybe express a couple of primary colors of emotion that way but that it can’t even begin to compete with the richness and subtlety of the emotional expression that one reads in a human face or body language. And I don’t know if there’s going to be a way of getting that kind of emotional richness to translate into electronic communication. And I think if it doesn’t happen, then I don’t think that electronic communication is ever going to sustain the kinds of relationships by itself that we require as a society and that it will only be able to support and enhance the face-to-face relationships that we’ve already developed. And I think we need to remember that.
THOMPSON: I’m a very shy person. It’s very difficult for me to introduce myself to people, to start a conversation. And I don’t do it much because I’m rather busy these days, what with being a college student and all. But I think that interactions online can be good way to initiate relationships. If you get to know someone online, there aren’t those social barriers holding you back from expressing your interests. It’s much easier if you can just click and see who else in Santa Clara is interested in, I don’t know--
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Synchronized swimming.
THOMPSON: --synchronized swimming, and you can just see all those other people. You don’t have to go around and ask 50 people, hey, are you perchance interested in synchronized swimming? It’s obvious right from the start. And you may not be able to maintain relationships as easily those ways, but it can be a very effective means of finding people who have interests in common.
KIRK HANSON: What I worry about is the opposite of tolerance. It is the intimacy and looking back on my life, time and face-to-face time is absolutely essential to the development of intimacy; the development of close friends. And I worry about the generation represented by the students in this room, about whether they will have the opportunity to achieve the same kind of intimacy that people were able to achieve maybe when they only had telephones, but not all of the electronic means of communication. And so it’s not just the substitution of time, because there’s a lot of time, we’ve got the cartoons of people sitting in their marital bed text messaging each other, but also it is whether one gets used to a certain kind of interaction that does not train one’s capabilities in achieving intimacy. So it may help the shy person to achieve one level, but does it prevent the greater depth of relationships that I believe is a part of being human?
THOMPSON: Well it’s just important to recognize the proper place of social networking. It’s not meant to absolutely replace other forms of communication. You’re never going to stop having actual conversations with people. There’s nothing better than having a really good conversation with someone on a topic that you both enjoy discussing. And I don’t think that anyone intends for this to replace those means of communication or to replace a telephone call. It does allow you to keep in touch with people who you might lose contact with otherwise. But in order to have intimate relationships with those people, you need to do something else other than leave a post on their wall every month or so. You can call them, write them a letter, arrange to get together for visits. But, yeah, again, it’s important to recognize the place of social networking. It’s not intended as a replacement. It’s intended to facilitate communication.
SQUIRES: And it’s a supplement as well. In the private network of 15 people that I was talking about, there are two people that were in San Francisco; everyone met in San Francisco and then they moved to Cleveland. And so they’re in town visiting this week and they just told me, “We love the site. We feel like we’re there. We feel like we know what’s going on at the different parties and all this stuff that we’re missing. We can keep in touch and feel like we’re still part of the group that’s there.” So it definitely doesn’t replace those friendships, but it definitely helps facilitate more communication and bringing people further into the fold.
VALLOR: Just want to add one thing to that. I agree that social networking technology isn’t intended to replace other kinds of relationships and that when social technology is doing what it does best, it doesn’t replace them. It enhances and supports them. But I think we also have to remember that technologies don’t just have an intended purpose, that for which they were designed. They also can have a valence, sort of the way they wind up getting used whether or not that’s what we intended when we developed them.
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Thank you. Well as you can tell, Marian has finally arrived. So, welcome. And why don’t you take a few minutes to make what will be the closing remarks.
LIU: Hi, my name is Marian Liu. I’m the pop music critic at the San Jose Mercury News. I also write for the Source. It’s a hip-hop national magazine. I want to apologize for coming in late. I thought this was tomorrow and I was on deadline finishing up a podcast on Mr. Fab.
HERNANDEZ-RAMOS: Thank you. I’ll take the moderator’s privilege and ask one question that relates to one point that Kaitlin was making about accountability. And maybe I’ll start with Jim and if the rest of the panelists takes it on. Jim, do you see, in social networking, the same kind of issues that the old carriers had in terms of being just a common carrier for whatever people put on your networks, or do you see that there is perhaps a role that your company should play, not quite moderating, not quite supervising, but taking away from the network offensive material?
SQUIRES: So we definitely take the stance of not actively policing the networks. And really our motto is different than a lot of the large social networks where it’s not about Ning. We give you the ability to take our name off of it. You can do whatever you want with it. You can, actually, dive down. If you want to hire an engineer or if you are an engineer, you can go into the code and change things. You can do whatever you want with it. It truly is a platform that is yours. So we will not actively go through and police and pull things down. If we stumble upon something that’s illegal or if we’re notified of something that’s illegal, we will definitely go through and delete that out of the system. But the stance we’ve taken is not to actively police it because I think once you get into that role, there are a lot of other implications of once we’re saying yep, we’re moderating this, it changes the whole dynamic of what we’re trying to accomplish.
VALLOR: I might not be able to limit my comments. I mean it’s a really complicated issue and I don’t really know that I know what the answer is. But I do think the question is an important one that there has to be some accountability mechanism somewhere. There are real problems with it being at sort of the level of the carrier. But I guess I’m not sure what the alternative is. But I think that’s one of the problems that we need to start thinking about now in trying to find some creative solutions to.
SQUIRES: And one more point on that is that we actually find out about most anything that we would take down if it’s illegal from other members within other networks. So there’s a lot of self-policing that goes on where you’ve got somebody who shows up in a network and they start spamming or they promote something that’s illegal, and all of a sudden we’ll have somebody report that to us. And that’s how we usually find out. So there’s a lot of self-policing that goes on within these communities as well.
Q: Follow-up on the self-policing issue you just mentioned. Where does Ning stand on that? Are you developing tools that allow people to kind of police their networks? For example, on LinkedIn, you can flag certain questions as inappropriate and so on. Are you investing resources to make sure that users have complicated or, at least, sophisticated means of self-policing or are you going to use that resource to promote and marketing Ning and let the market kind of handle itself?
SQUIRES: We actually already have introduced those tools, inside your network, as the creator and then when we introduced the concept of having multiple administrators that have privileges of a creator. It operates very differently than the Facebook or MySpace because each of those 50,000 networks is its own MySpace or Facebook for that community. And it’s 10 people to thousands of people. So within there, just like MySpace might police MySpace, I don’t know if they do that or they don’t, but if they were to do that, it’s the equivalent of, as a network creator, you can decide, you know what, this person is not acting appropriately and you’re essentially playing God. It could be illegal or it could be just they annoy you and you can ban them from the network. You can delete them from the network. You can do what you want with that. Within your domain, as you create those networks, you have control over how you want to police it and how you want to run the feel of the network.
May 14, 2007
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Irina Raicu, director of Internet Ethics, quoted in VICE.